The Media Satchel - Circulation, Convergence, Consolidation, Democracy

'Don't think of it as a newspaper: it's a data platform' at GigaOM
The Convergence Review occupying multiple column inches, circulation results, lingering scepticism surrounding Gina Rinehart's stake in Fairfax, and talk of a sell-off of ACP magazines to rival Pacific... times are certainly interesting in the world of Australian media.   

It's a landscape that seems to be expanding but shrinking all at once, not the least because all the pundits have a means for publishing their point of view. Is the playing field fair? Far from it. Are we information starved? Not really. Yet in this survival-of-the-fittest climate, when the bread-and-butter of your livelihood is at stake and everything is changing and nothing's the same, you are either on the offensive, defensive or quietly minding your own business and waiting to see what will happen.

What is happening? We are very much concerned about the idea that the media has considerable clout as far as the transference of values and news go, and that everyone should have a say in the way it is managed. The media claims to be the Fourth Estate, holding our politicians and businesspeople and shonky warlords in far-off lands accountable, while upholding our democratic right to freedom of speech, telling us who we are and reflecting what we think (or is that reflecting who we are and telling us what we think?).

Unfortunately, a very small percentage of the media is public property; the rest lies in the hands of shareholders and very wealthy institutions whose primary goal is to – shock, horror! – make money, which has the effect of diminishing that which may be in the public's best interest. Fortunately, having one's opinions heard is no longer restricted to those with access to the printing presses. Every man can have a blog. The contentious bit, of course is, 'Yes, but is anybody reading it?'.

The minefield that is the contemporary Australian media is worth navigating (or mining). We are glad that that is in the hands of the Independent Media Inquiry (due to report to Government by February 28) and the Convergence Review (final report due in March). There will inevitably be loopholes and flaws – as there are with any laws – but the end goal is a market that is efficient and profitable, but not unfairly so, and that also upholds democratic principles. We love a fair go. But are we delusional to think this is how the media works? 

In their paper, 'Updating diversity of voice arguments for online news media', Dr Tim Dwyer and Dr Fiona Martin of the University of Sydney note that Australia has the highest level of media ownership concentration to comparable democracies. The 20-year cross-media ownership limits relaxed in 2007 by the Howard Government to allow for the ownership of a TV station, radio station and newspaper in the same capital city, as well as foreign ownership, have added to more concentration via market deregulation (a hallmark of any Liberal government).

At the time, this was justified by then Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan on the basis of keeping Australia competitive in a changing media environment. "The current cross-media laws increasingly risk inhibiting the growth of new services, limiting media companies from obtaining economies of scale and scope, constraining them in addressing the kind of challenges I've talked about, posed by emerging media forms," she told the ABC

Now, in the thick of the new media environment, we are aware that those with the most money own the most assets and they are being bought up with alarming frequency, and the playing field is dominated by a few (yes, just like the school playground). This is problematic if you believe that this ownership of resources is not amendable to a fair and just Australia; this is not problematic if you believe that media has no part to play in Australia's economic, political and social life.

"Nine to offload paper giants" was the Australian Financial Review headline that accompanied James Chessell and Nabila Ahmed's report on a clandestine meeting between executives at Nine Entertainment Co and Seven West Media over the potential sale of Nine's ACP Magazines division. The notion was dismissed as ridiculous by former Murdoch Magazines owner Matt Handbury, who sold the bulk of his publishing business to Pacific Magazines in 2004, but has expressed interest in buying back into the business.

"The solution of sticking the two companies together would have all sorts of issues," he told AdNews. "I'm sure the ACCC would look at the disappearance of a major magazine entity in Australia being swallowed by the only other player, and consider the loss of diversity, concentration of power and market ownership."
Of course, the proposition that one major magazine player would buy another major magazine player is contentious. This idea in particular, should it be entertained at all, would see a concentration of magazines in the hands of one corporate, who would then have the freedom to execute its business as it wishes, potentially eliminating those goods that are not profitable. 

No sense in holding onto titles, for example, that are in direct competition to your own product (i.e. New Idea/Woman's Day) when there can be one nifty product that commends a higher cover price (i.e. increase profit by restricting output). The problem is that this monopoly-like situation would mean that the publisher can effectively limit diversity of voices and therefore options for Australian consumers.

Equity is hard to achieve in a free-market system that has seen media ownership contract to the point where it is primarily in the hands of a few powerful and money-full organisations – which no amount of personal blogging from one's bedroom or podcasting points of view can compete with (unless you gain popular appeal by way of the mainstream media, who still has the last say on who makes it and who doesn't).

As noted by Rob Harding-Smith of the Centre for Policy Development, "While the internet does provide Australians with a seemingly endless supply of alternative news and information sources, we still typically seek our news from within the pre-existing media ecosystem. Analysis of the Google top 100 websites visited by Australians in 2010 revealed that we regularly look at only 12 websites that could be classified as ‘news based’." These include five owned by News Limited, three by Fairfax, ninemsn (Nine Entertainment Co/Microsoft), msn (Microsoft) and websites for the ABC and BBC.

"Convergence means the overlap between different types of media is huge, particularly online," said Deakin University Associate Professor in Journalism Martin Hirst at The Conversation. "We now see television and radio networks producing blogs and other forms of written copy. You can go to the ABC News website and read transcripts of stories from ABC radio current affairs program AM, and you can go onto a newspaper’s website and watch video content that they have made." 
Democracy is what we are all for, and that means some regulation is necessary to keep the rich from lauding it over the poor. But for all the diversity and plurality of voices online and in print (if you seek them out), we still tend to gravitate, in a herd-like way, to what has mass appeal. It's easy, it's comfortable and it's "popular" for a reason, one might argue. We can all, at times, be a bit lazy in our consumptive habits (the passive consumer is the delight of commercial mass-media). 

Still, when we reflect on the state of media affairs – as we did when the whole News of the World saga transpired and was brought to full and ugly light, we get our knickers in a knot. As if having the scales cast from our eyes we think, 'Hey, that's not right!' even though it was under our noses the whole time. If there aren't accountability measures, and rules based on fairness, to keep everything in check, then we may well wake up one day and say, 'Society has gone to the dogs; when did this start?', and we have to admit that our willful ignorance, and financial support, played a part. 

But to what extent should the media be held accountable for its own actions, how much work should legislation do if media is to remain competitive (and, all things said, some of the best journalism is being financed by the big organisations) and how much power do we attribute to the discerning reader/consumer?

It would be nice to think that we are sensible enough to read straight through any slant that might taint your newspaper, blog or magazine reading experience. It doesn't take a full six pack to work out that sometimes the gossip magazines make stuff up ("gossip" being the operative word), while most publications are ostensibly right (The Daily Telegraph, The Australian) or left (the ABC, The Sydney Morning Herald) in political leaning. Still we will likely buy whatever publications or watch whatever shows or tune into the radio station that suits our sensibility and ideological point of view.

On the media side of things, working against the big players is the frustration of copyright ownership and infringement, which technically is covered by the Copyright Act and terms of fair use. Like the music and film industries, which have experienced a period of sales devastation, consolidation and restructuring to meet the reality of online piracy, the media is intent on claiming back its rights to ownership of the original content it creates (at great expense) and claiming a healthy return on this investment. Rightly so. 

The extent to which its interests are aided by the proliferation of copy-catting, by way of sending people back to the original source, is not exactly measurable. In the cut-and-paste new-media environment, it's very hard to control the rights to your work and it would be nice to think that people could just be fair and give credit where credit's due and ask for permission if they intend on reprinting or republishing something that is yours. Those representing the digital economy say over-regulation would be rather burdensome given that they are in a globally competitive marketplace and the same rules won't apply to other nations, as with the Carbon Tax, giving them an advantage. 

Spectator Australia editor Tom Switzer used a recent editorial, 'Two sets of rules', to articulate his frustration over the apparent disconnect between the outcry over Gina Rinehart's investment in Fairfax and the silence over the launch of The Global Mail, underwritten by travel website founder and Greens supporter Graeme Woode. "Mr Woode now has his very own media outlet through which to pimp his worldview into the public sphere," he wrote.

Of course, if any media proprietor wants to laud it over a journalist, such as one of Global Mail editor Monica Attard's esteem, they would be met with some contrition. Where is the value in simply towing the party line when it is your job to provide a readership with fair, accurate and balanced reporting? It rails against the notion of why journalists do the job they do. 

It also does not make commercial sense – those publications billing themselves on good, original, analytical journalism can profit in the new media environment (it's not all lowest-common-denominator stuff). And there is still value to be made in generating Australian content, which is another point of contention as it costs money to do (take, for example, increased sales of Frankie magazine versus the more universal Cosmopolitan magazine).

Australian media regulations, as they stand, don't make allowances for ownership of URLs or social media extensions (are Facebook and Twitter media channels, or 'Content Service Enterprises' (CSEs), as the Convergence Review would call them?), and even magazine publishing in a single marketplace. The interim Convergence Review report noted, "in a converged world where content can be delivered via multiple platforms – including the internet – managing scarcity for content distribution is becoming irrelevant and unworkable." 

But the report has made provisions for a 'public interest test', which, according to Greg Boreham, chairman of the Convergence Review, will apply whenever a major transaction is taking place, to ask, "Does this diminish competition, is this in the interest of diversity and pluralism in our media, and does it serve the Australian public interest?" and will be overseen by a media super-regulator. Maintaining a fair and just equilibrium in the highly competitive commercial media world may be near-on impossible, but is nonetheless aspirational. But just because something is not a commercial success does not make it less worthwhile. 

On the newspaper circulation front, all is not dismal for print: The Australian (Monday to Friday) increased its circulation for the December quarter by 3.5 per cent to 133,701 copies and its weekend edition followed suit (up 1.65 per cent to 295,066 copies). While our only national general newspaper, it competes with the blue-collar read The Daily Telegraph (down 1.84 per cent to 347,722) and The Sydney Morning Herald (down 11.94 per cent to 184,613) and The Age (down 5.99 per cent to 184,156), which are available in some interstate markets. The business-oriented Australian Financial Review has been selling 72,282 daily copies on average and has revealed it has 10,897 paid online subscribers.    

The Washington Post is making 48 staff redundant after reporting a nine per cent revenue drop in the third quarter year-on-year, a 20 per cent decline in advertising revenue, 14 per cent drop in online revenue and circulation decline. The Washington Post Company owns the newspaper, Slate, a community newspaper group and an educational unit.

Over at The Conversation, a news hub for academics supported by the CSIRO and leading universities launched last year, which attracted an editorial in The Australian this week, University of Sydney publications co-ordinator and casual lecturer in publishing Agata Mrva-Montoya writes, 'Academic publishing must go digital to survive', her examination of the four university presses, "established cultural institutions that contribute greatly to the intellectual and political life of Australia".  
Don't mind the typo: give new media enterprises a go. The Tamborine Daily Star
In more parochial news, also putting paid to the idea that there's no life in newspapers, Tamborine Mountain has seen the launch of a new community newspaper, The Daily Star.  The paper is advertising for three positions.

So there you go...

Video c/o New Ray Com

Girl With a Satchel